Quality in manufacturing stands to benefit from perhaps the biggest industrial shift in our lifetimes—what is popularly known as Smart Manufacturing, Industry 4.0, or The 4th Industrial Revolution.

By Mark Shortt

August 1, 2022

In today’s modern manufacturing facilities, what jumps out immediately are the technologies that are playing an important role in quality assurance, inspection, control, and management. These technologies, many of them digitally connected, are continually evolving and are part of the larger Smart Manufacturing, or Industry 4.0, wave of factory innovations.

The manufacturer’s quality toolkit, once dominated by fancy microscopes and traditional metrology instruments, has expanded to include various types of advanced software, imaging, sensors, automation, computer vision, and robotics that can reduce or eliminate human error while performing in-process monitoring and inspection. Throw in some data analytics, machine learning, and AI, and you’ve got the capabilities to do even more. That includes using predictive analytics to determine when a mold or machine is likely to show signs of wear that could cause part defects.

Consider Sciaky, Inc., for example. The company, known far and wide for its welding capabilities, has also made a name for itself in electron beam additive manufacturing (EBAM). Its EBAM process reportedly brings quality and control together with the Interlayer Real-time Imaging and Sensing System (IRISS®).

IRISS is an innovative, closed loop control, reportedly the only real-time adaptive control system in the metal 3D printing market that can sense and digitally self-adjust metal deposition with precision and repeatability. It’s also the primary reason that Sciaky’s EBAM 3D printing process is able to deliver consistent part geometry, mechanical properties, microstructure, and metal chemistry, “from the first part to the last,” the company said in a release.

The power that digital technologies offer today’s manufacturers is also illustrated by The Smart Factory @ Wichita, a 60,000-square-foot facility launched by Deloitte. In addition to employing advanced manufacturing techniques, the factory uses technologies like AI, machine learning, big data, cloud and edge applications, robotics, and computer vision.

The Smart Factory @ Wichita features a cloud-based technology platform, Smart Factory Accelerator, which offers advanced analytics that can help manufacturers solve for important operational challenges, including visibility into end-to-end operations at scale. The analytics also provide proactive, predictive operational insights and help achieve “step-change performance objectives,” the company said in a release.

Still another example are two Massachusetts manufacturing facilities operated by VulcanForms—one in Devens and the other in Newburyport. While the Devens facility features a fleet of proprietary 100-kilowatt class, laser powder bed fusion additive manufacturing systems, the Newburyport plant offers automated precision machining and assembly.

The Devens facility combines additive manufacturing technology with a digital thread that spans advanced simulation, in-process sensing, and machine learning algorithms. Together, they “ensure the highest level of quality and precision,” VulcanForms said in a release. According to the company, merging the technologies of its two facilities with a digital thread offers “groundbreaking, U.S.-based digital manufacturing infrastructure” to its customers.

Yes, smart technology and Industry 4.0 offer great potential for improving quality in manufacturing. But even as their benefits become clearer and more apparent, issues around technology adoption inevitably arise. Many small and medium sized manufacturers—your suppliers and potential suppliers—say they don’t have the time, personnel, or capital to implement such a cultural shift.

Now, as they look toward the future, an increasing number of them are becoming interested. They’ve started researching, asking questions, going to trade shows to learn how smart manufacturing fits into their plans, their visions for their companies. You’re probably already connecting with companies like this—suppliers who haven’t yet adopted smart technology in their manufacturing operations, but are starting to seriously look into it.

From a quality standpoint, it’s worth asking their representatives and leaders what’s leading them to get involved with smart manufacturing. What problems are they hoping to solve, and what would they like to achieve with smart technology? It’s a good sign if quality improvement is on their list.

Questions to consider

It’s often been said the customer is the ultimate arbiter of quality.

With that in mind, has your supplier, or potential supplier, demonstrated that it consistently meets and exceeds your expectations, as well as any applicable industry specifications, for the quality of its manufactured parts? Besides having a strong record of achieving strict customer requirements and industry specifications, does the company have in place a Quality Management System that can quickly identify the root causes of defects, and then implement appropriate corrective and preventative actions?

Also, does your supplier use proven tools and processes to ensure part quality and support continuous improvement? These are some basic questions to consider as you evaluate a potential supplier’s ability to deliver high-quality parts and services.

Parts manufacturers, manufacturing service providers, and independent testing labs offer a variety of testing, inspection, and lab services to verify that parts requirements are being met. Nondestructive testing (NDT), failure analysis, and temperature testing, as well as vibration testing, magnetic particle inspection, and liquid penetrant inspection, are just a few examples of these services.

Because services like these are vital to the development, production, and delivery of high-quality parts, it’s important to take full advantage of them. A supplier’s testing, measurement, and inspection should never be overlooked or given scant attention.

Finally, if you believe your company could benefit from assistance in upgrading your quality management system, connect with your local Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Center for more information.

The MEP National Network is a unique public-private partnership that helps small and medium-sized manufacturers generate business results and thrive in today’s technology-driven economy. The MEP National Network comprises the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership (NIST MEP) and the 51 MEP Centers located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

You can contact Mark at mark@d2p.com.

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